Four Iconic LGBTQ+ Jewish Women Who Made History

by Heni Pupco & Jess Pavlides

Eva Kotchever, Lesley Gore, Raffi Freedman-Gurspan, Rabbi Sandra Lawson

In a month that is meant to be celebrating women and their accomplishments, we have once again found ourselves mourning, fighting, and begging for our humanity and freedom. At Nesh, we acknowledge these difficult times and recognize that they appear to be cyclical, incessant, and something that needs to be fought against every day of the year.

However, at this time, we also want to try to provide some light in the dark and try to remind ourselves what Women’s History Month is about. Women make history left and right, and the four Queer Jewish women highlighted here are a vital part of that history. Each one has made a difference in the lives of those around them and is an inspiration to other women all around the world. Especially those from marginalized groups, women are both an essential part of our history and our future.

Eva Kotchever AKA Eva Adams

Born Chawa Czlotcheber to a Jewish family in Mlawa, Poland, Eva Kotchever was the founder of the United States earliest lesbian bar (read actually a tea room) that ran from 1925 to 1926. Reina Gattusi, in her piece on the icon for Atlas Obscura, explains that she was known as “the queen of the third sex” and was friends with other historic rulebreakers (i.e., Henry Miller, Anais Nin, and Emma Golman) of that time. Open to poets, creatives, and Jewish and immigrant intellectuals denied access to the mainstream establishments, thanks to xenophobia and antisemitism, Kotchever’s business was a place for The Village's diversity to breathe. Importantly, the Tearoom was a safe sanctuary for women when there were seldom places they could visit without male guardians and (of course) a haven for queer women. Kotchever offered a safe space where queer women could meet to connect and share stories without having to constantly look over their shoulders or fear the repercussions of vocalizing their queer experiences. Kotchever also self-published a book of Lesbian short stories called Lesbian Love, which would later be used as evidence in her arrest. The icon was charged with obscenity and disorderly conduct, and the authorities deported her back to Europe (NYC LGBT Sites). She was already settled in Paris for years when the Nazis arrived in 1940. Sadly, Kotchever was rounded up in Nice with hundreds of other Jews and was killed in Camp Auschwitz just two years before its liberation. Playwright Barbar Kahn would later produce musicals based on Kotchever’s life and story.

Lesley Gore

Lesley Gore, born Lesley Sue Goldstein on May 2, 1946, was known for her ’60s teen romance songs like “Judy’s Turn to Cry” and its prequel, “It’s My Party,” which made it to #1 on the charts. During the height of her career, Gore was still attending school full time at Sarah Lawrence College, and, according to Making Queer History, this is where Gore began getting involved in activism. Gore publicly came out in 2004 when hosting the PBS series “In the Life” after realizing how little representation young gay people had, especially those living in small towns.

Although most teen love songs that skyrocketed Gore to fame weren’t exactly empowering classics, Gore’s 1964 “You Don’t Own Me” is now considered a feminist anthem. Gore explained to the Minneapolis Star-Tribune that originally the song wasn’t specifically about feminism or being a woman. Still, as time went on and as she became more involved in activism, she began to recognize the song for what it is. When watching a young Gore on the T.A.M.I Show singing with so much unapologetic pride about not just resenting being on display or tied down but loving her freedom as well; one can’t help but feel a little inspired. Gore herself told the Minneapolis Star-Tribune that: “I don’t care what you are — whether you’re 16 or 116 — there’s nothing more wonderful than standing on the stage and shaking your finger and singing, ‘Don’t tell me what to do.’” Although spawning countless covers, perhaps its most famous performance is in the iconic outro of the “First Wives Club,” which ends with three best friends establishing a nonprofit for helping abused women.

Later in life, Gore would begin songwriting and eventually be nominated for “Out Here on my Own,” a song written by her and her brother, Michael, for the movie Fame. Gore continued to work in the entertainment industry for decades, having stints on Broadway and television, whilst still recording music and partaking in activism. In 2005, she re-recorded “You Don’t Own Me,” this time with more than forty years of experience of being a woman in a patriarchal world, and industry seeped into its lyrics.

Raffi Freedman-Gurspan

Raffi Freedman-Gurspan is an American transgender rights activist and was the first openly transgender person to work as a White House staffer. She advocates for and is a public policy specialist in matters like human rights, gender, and the LGBTQ+ community. Born to Lenca (indigenous peoples of western Honduras and east El Salvador) parents, but then adopted and raised by a Jewish family, Raffi identifies as both Lenca and Jewish. After graduating from St. Olaf College, she joined the Massachusetts Transgender Political Coalition, where she worked on legislative and policy issues. This was the beginning of her career in politics.

In 2010, she was hired by the Mayor of Massachusetts to serve as the city’s LGBTQ+ liaison. The following year she began working as a legislative staffer in the Massachusetts State House and was the first openly transgender person to fill the role. She played a major part in passing the transgender civil rights bill. In 2014, she joined the National Center for Transgender Equality (NCTE) as a policy advisor, with a focus on transgender people of color and those living in poverty. A year later, she was hired by Obama as the Outreach and Recruitment director and the White House’s LGBTQ+ liaison. In 2017, Obama appointed her as a member of the United States Holocaust Memorial Council. Freedman-Gurpan later returned to the NCTE and continues to advocate for LGBTQ+ equal rights.

Rabbi Sandra Lawson

Sandra Lawson is one of the world’s first openly gay, Black, and woman rabbi. She is known as the ‘Snapchat Rabbi’ and has a large online presence across many different social media platforms, where she leads blessings and incorporates music into them by playing the guitar. Along with being a rabbi and a musician, Sandra is an activist who speaks on many issues like racism, is a vegan, public speaker, bodybuilder, and an army veteran. Coming from a military family, Rabbi Sandra decided to join the Army in her junior year of college. She then spent several years in the United States Army as a Military Police Investigator, where she worked on cases involving child abuse and domestic violence.

After leaving the military, she opened her own personal training business. Here she met many wonderful Jewish people through her clients, and it was after this, she decided to convert. Rabbi Sandra was also already interested in Judaism prior to her starting her business, thanks to courses she took at St. Leo University. She is also related to an Ethiopian Jew who was the first in her family to immigrate to America, and converting was a way of getting in touch with those roots. Before she began rabbinical school, she worked for the Anti-Defamation League, serving as an investigative researcher and monitoring hate groups' activities. Rabbi Sandra was then later ordained by the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College. She now serves as Associate Chaplain for Jewish Life at Elon University and lives in North Carolina with her wife and their three dogs. To learn more about her, join us on our Instagram page on March 31st at 5 pm EST for a live interview with Rabbi Sandra!

Heni Pupco (she/her) graduated with a Bachelor of Arts (Honours) in Political Studies from Queen’s University in 2020. She is a staff writer at Nesh. Jess Pavlides (they/them) is a contributor to Nesh and on the Board of Directors of Nesh’s non-profit organization.